By Linda Bordoni and Mario Galgano
Pope Francis has told a Filipino bishop who has received death threats for criticizing his government’s so-called “drug war”, that he knows what he is going through and that he is praying for him.
Rights groups claim over 20,000 people have been killed in extrajudicial killings, mostly carried out by the country’s police since the President took power in 2016 promising to crackdown on illegal drugs.
Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan told Vatican News he was moved and encouraged by the Pope’s words, which came during a meeting last week in the Vatican. He said the Pope said to him “I want you to know that I know your situation. I know what you are going through. I am praying for you.”
The bishop was in Rome with a first group of Filipino bishops who are travelling to the Vatican for their ad limina visit.
Bishop David is waging a campaign to stop the extrajudicial killings, provide rehabilitation to drug addicts, and raise awareness regarding a culture of violence that, he says, is prevailing in the Philippines.
In the interview, Bishop David explained how he told the Pope about the violence and the injustice being perpetrated, in particular, in his diocese:
“When I asked Pope Francis whether or not he was aware of what is going on in the diocese of Kalookan”, where much of the drug war is being waged, “he told me he is keeping well informed”, Bishop David said.
He explained that he has taken upon himself the task of documenting the continuing abuse and violence. To do this, the Bishop has set up a Commission and appointed a team to do proper documentation, partnering with photojournalists who record the killings and provide information about the victims.
“It has been heartbreaking meeting with the widows, orphans, families of the victims of the war against drugs” he said, expressing his pain for having been “vilified by the government”. “Our lives have been threatened but I know in my conscience that what I am doing is right, taking a spiritual stance as a pastor,” he said.
Bishop David said he believes that those who become addicted to drugs are human beings; that they are victims; and that they should be rehabilitated, not killed. He said that if the government has declared a war against illegal drugs they should go after the source.
He said that he lives in sorrow for the killings that, he claims, take place on a daily basis. He reveled that since he has been documenting the situation there have been “more than 1000 victims within my immediate environment”.
Church-run rehabilitation programmes
Bishop David said he has introduced programmes for rehabilitation. “So there is no reason for the government to be angry with us – because we are in fact helping the government”.
He explained that, in partnership with the local Kalookan authorities, he has set up a community-based drug rehabilitation programme that involves family, community, and individuals.
“I have opened my parishes for drug rehabilitation and I believe it is a way of saving lives,” he said.
The Bishop explained that currently there are about 300 people undergoing rehab in 5 different parishes. Some, he said, “have voluntarily sought our help; others are in jail and through a plea-bargaining agreement with the Court, have been entrusted to us for rehab; others are children who are already using illegal drugs at a very young age”.
With due respect for the government, which has to deal with law and order, Bishop David said, “The big problem is that the use of drugs is criminalized”. In reality, he explained, it is a mental health issue, and it is the victims that are being targeted.
While the Pope’s words of encouragement to continue to give voice to the Church’s prophetic role have been incredibly consoling for him, Bishop David said he is not optimistic, as it appears the majority of Filipinos seem to approve of this method of addressing criminality.
“It pains me, as it seems we have also failed – as pastors –in educating the minds and consciences of our people”, he said.
Although he has received support from many people, including Cardinal Tagle of Manila — who has provided him with some security following the death threats — Bishop David said people find it “difficult to accept our stand”.
“They say you should be happy the government is controlling criminality and getting rid of drug addicts. That shocks me because we are supposed to be a predominantly Catholic country. So when I deal with this kind of mentality, which is so contrary to the values of being a Christian, I say we are also to blame for not having communicated Christian values, the Christian faith very well”.
The jails are full
Bishop David explained that there are many implications to be dealt with, including the fact that the jails in his country are full. He noted that, “the district jail of Kalookan has a maximum capacity of 200. It has 2400 prisoners… in a little space. More than 85% of them do not need jail, they need rehabilitation”.
In an attempt to tackle this unsustainable situation, he said he is negotiating with the Courts to allow him to introduce his Diocese’s rehabilitation programme inside the jail. He said he has received a positive response, but the lack of space is a problem.
Support and help from Catholic leaders
The bishop said he has received visits from various Catholic leaders including the Jesuit General “who came all the way from Rome to visit one of the mission stations in the Diocese, as a response to the Pope’s call to go out to the peripheries”.
The Bishop pointed out that in his diocese of 2 million people, there are only 27 parishes; and so he has invited missionaries to collaborate with him. He said they are working mostly in the slum areas with the urban poor.
Father Michel Perry, Minister General of the Franciscan Friars, has also visited Kalookan, and has opened a mission station, which has blossomed and become the Santa Clara parish.
The victims are people, not statistics
It was there, Bishop David said, “that I first came into contact with the brutal extrajudicial killing of a young boy, who had been apprehended by police: it was heart-breaking”.
“It is different when you meet the families of victims up close, when you see the faces, when you get to know the names. On television, they are just statistics. Numbers don’t move people. It is faces and real identities that move us,” he said.
The Bishop said he personally was moved by his encounter with these people, “especially knowing that this boy was most likely innocent of the accusation against him … that he was involved in drugs at all. And even if he was involved in drugs, why should he deserve to die?”
He said the one victory that has been achieved pertains to the case of an innocent 17-year-old boy, Kian Dos Santos, who was picked up by police and brutally slain. The killing was captured on CCTV, and, for the first time, a case was filed and won, with the police officers involved being sentenced to life-imprisonment.
But witnesses are afraid, Bishop David said. “It’s not every day you accuse the police”, members of the very institution that is supposed to protect lives, not destroy them.
“I know there are a lot of decent policemen who do not want to be part of this”, he said. But in the Philippines the police force “has become a killing machine”.